Joining Jarvis D. Braham’s Swimming School in 1838 Boston.

The printer's name, S. N. Dickinson is visible in the lower left hand corner of the receipt. Cotsen 30631.

The printer’s name, S. N. Dickinson is visible in the lower left hand corner of the receipt. Cotsen 30631.

It’s too hot and humid this Fourth of July weekend to write about anything except cooling down in the pool.   This little receipt documents Henry Brown’s membership in the Swimming School operated by Jarvis Braman in Boston near Chesnut Street at the foot of Beacon Hill.  It opened its doors in 1836 and after the old man’s death in 1850, his son Jarvis Dwight continued to manage the business at least until 1872, according to Boston city directories.  The Bramans were not the first to operate a pool in Boston; that distinction belongs to Francis Lieber, who opened one in 1826 at the short-lived Boston Gymnasium.  Although the reason given for withdrawing support was that the exercises were too vigorous, there were uncomfortable questions about whether women and African-Americans should be allowed access.

Henry paid for admission on June 10, 1838 and it looks as if he were member number 52.  He did not sign up for lessons or a bathing costume, so perhaps he had learned to swim the previous year and now needed access to keep up his strokes, strength, and stamina. The $5.00 fee sounds very reasonable, even without any indication of how many months’ admission he signed up for.  That $5.00, however, had the purchasing power of $136.00 in today’s currency, so it was probably a lot for many people to pay.  Certainly less affluent Bostonians availed themselves of Braman’s public bath at a different address.

The back of the receipt states all the rules governing members.  Opening hours were between sunrise to sunset.  No swimming naked: the drawers were for the swimmer’s safety as well as modesty, because proficient swimmers were designated by the red cords around their waists. The interpretation of rule 8 poses a few difficulties. Does “interfere” mean no rough housing or horse play?  Or no physical contact of any sort between boys to forestall the temptation of self-pollution?  Rule 6, which states that boys may not go into any other boys’ apartments, suggests that management felt obligated to try and maintain their scholars’ purity.

Things on the Continent do not seem to have been quite so regimented, at least in book illustrations where children are shown swimming outside in idyllic settings.  In this German salute to the seasons, July was the time for swimming.  The boys are shown  a garment that looks like a modern pair of trunks, although they were probably made of woven cloth, not a knitted jersey.  Perhaps American boys wore something similar.

Ein Jahr und seine Freuden, between 1840 and 1850? This board book of hand-colored lithographs has no publishing information. Cotsen 31899.

G. de Pomaret, Les Diables a quatre. Illustrated by Petit and F. Appel. Paris: Theodore Lefevre, 1892. Cotsen 10780.

This illustration of a French Famous Five offers an interesting contrast to the previous illustration.  Coed bathing seems not to have been forbidden.  Certainly the children’s costumes are less revealing than the German ones.  The boy’s chest is covered up, but the trunks are shorter. The girls are wearing suits in two pieces, with the waists defined by drawstrings.  Their shorts come to the knee instead of mid-thigh.  The hems of the blouses and shorts are trimmed.  Everyone has short sleeves, conducive to getting what used to ungraciously be called a “farmer’s tan” in Southern California.  Did anyone in the nineteenth century use some kind of sunscreen to prevent sunburn????

To see more children enjoying swimsr, visit Cotsen’s virtual exhibition Water Babies.


Dressing FLOTUS: A 1939 Maybelle Mercer Paper Doll Book

Long before the Smithsonian mounted its popular exhibition about the First Ladies of the United States, which includes actual gowns that were worn at their husbands’ inaugural balls, there was a paper doll book.  Designed by Maybelle Mercer, it’s a  parade of gorgeous dresses worn by the female residents of the White House from Martha Washington to Anna Eleanor Roosevelt. Four smartly coiffed paper dolls are printed on the back cover   Tall and slim, the lengths of their torsos and limbs indicate that they must be as tall as professional basketball players.  Their alluring undergarments are entirely modern–forerunners of Spanx, perhaps?  Not a token corset for historical accuracy in sight, but none of these lovelies would need that foundation garment to fit into a dress with a wasp waist.  Long skirts will conceal their sleek high-heeled pumps.

To stage a fashion show of the First Ladies’ finery, the dolls must be punched out and mounted on the stands provided. Then the gowns must be curated.   Each dress includes a biographical sketch of the original owner and information about the fabrics, styling, and occasion when it was worn.  Notice that paper facsimiles of these late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century gowns have two unwieldy tabs to secure them to the dolls’ shoulders.The fun facts about the dresses may have taken from some other source, perhaps some between wars Smithsonian publication or exhibition.

This plate pits Mrs. Woodrow Wilson against Martha Jefferson Randolph.  Choosing between these two visions in black and white is difficult, unless your loyalty to Princeton is unconditional…

Maybelle Mercer’s paper doll book seems to be relatively common on the collectibles market, so perhaps many of the original purchasers never could bear to take out  scissors and cut the dresses away from the copy, leaving an untidy pile of irregularly shaped bits and pieces.  Or perhaps Saalfield the publisher kept it in print for some time.

Discovering this paper doll book in the stacks  on a quest for tigers to be displayed in the “Welcome Back, Tigers” exhibition for Reunions was a pleasant surprise.   Cotsen’s collection of paper doll books does not have all that many of the “famous faces” type, except for  ones about Twiggy and Shirley Temple, which were recent acquistions.  A future post for the sets featuring twins, children of different ethnicities, etc. is clearly in order.  Until then, if you’d like to see more paper dolls in Cotsen, take a look at the post about the ones designed by Elizabeth Voss